All that commotion about computer meltdown on New Year’s Eve, 1999, proved to be unfounded: computers transitioned from 19-something to 20-something without much problem. It seemed particularly odd to some of us, because 2000 wasn’t even the first year of the new millennium; that was 2001. So Hal Holt, Director of the Fennimore County History Center, decided to use that ambivalent year, 2000, for reflection on community history.
Among Hal’s collected essays, my favorite may be ninety-year-old Henry Schütz’s recollection of building Christ the King church. Henry served on the building committee—with Brian McAfee, Walter Breen and a couple others—as Father Farber and architect Francis Barry Byrne designed the new church during 1949-1950. Henry was the sole survivor of the group.
Building a Church
by Heinrich Schütz
On the fiftieth anniversary of its dedication to the Glory of God and service to our community—which all too soon will entail a funeral for this writer—I will set down some recollection about the design and construction of Christ the King Roman Catholic church. Though my role in that process was small, telling its story seems to have befallen me as a survivor from that time.
Two churches preceded the present Christ the King, the first St Ahab’s of 1860 and a replacement twenty years later. Parish growth and the need for a third larger building began with the arrival of Rev Emil Farber in 1939.
Father Farber had come to us from a village in the Alsace-Lorraine, French territory annexed to Germany in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War. The ambivalence of its citizenry can be seen in his name — Emil or Emile — a wise choice in a land of divided loyalties. Farber’s maternal grandmother, Estelle Milhaud,* was of Jewish ancestry (distant cousin of a French composer), so the family emigrated in the 1920s with the rise of National Socialism.
The original parish was dedicated to Saint Ahab (the only one in America, I think) but that building had suffered during the Depression. So Father became both priest and plumber, and spent as much time patching roofs as he did serving Communion. A few remember his fall from the roof, but most were unaware of the damage to his health: in the six months that followed, he lost nearly all his sight. Old and injured priests are put to pasture, a terrible fate for God’s helpers, so we covered for him in subtle ways — especially during the Bishop’s annual visit. Mrs Breen and my dad especially. They pulled it off for the rest of his career with us.
Emil was progressive for his generation. As you can see from the church built with Mr Byrne, the architect, they anticipated the reforms of Vatican II.
Architect and client met in a curious way, as though it was meant to be. On a pilgrimage to Ireland in the 1920s, Father saw the Church of Christ the King in Cork. But it was more than twelve years later that the accidental rerouting of a train brought them together. Byrne must have known Father was blind but he never let on. Their work together required many models of cardboard and clay and the result was a mutual achievement.
Mr Holt’s construction company from Des Moines were the builders, but many of us locals were hired, including my brothers. Brian McAfee did much of the plastering. Karl Wasserman made the Stations of the Cross, the only ones I’ve ever seen in braille. And the windows came from Frie & Harmon in St Louis, some of the best modern glass in the state.
Since dedication in 1951 very few changes have been required. In 2000 the sacristy is being converted to a chapel dedicated to Saint Ahab, but the school they intended was never built. Otherwise our church looks much as it did fifty years ago, though Father Farber could not see his work, only feel it. They built both beautifully and well.
Our family are proud to have played a role.
[Schütz was writing this in 2000. The building has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places.]
Not all who have sight are also blessed with vision.
* Estelle was a second cousin of French composer Darius Milhaud, who spent some of the war years in the U.S. It’s possible that Fr Farber may have met his distant relative and exchanged family history.